Most people remember Aasiya Zubair Hassan for her death – how her manipulative and vengeful husband stabbed and beheaded her in February 2009 in an Orchard Park television studio. They remember the riveting, two-week murder trial that exposed Muzzammil "Mo" Hassan as a deluded and narcissistic killer.
But to her stepchildren, Aasiya Hassan shouldn't just be remembered for her death – she should be remembered for her life.
"For me, her legacy is her spirit and her strength," said stepdaughter Sonia Hassan, 28. "What she ultimately wanted was for us to be free of that violence, free of that abuse. Despite everything we’ve gone through in our family, we’re able to live lives we never would have been able to if our father were still involved."
In the 10 years since her death, her name remains tied to an international wake-up call to fight domestic violence. Locally, hundreds of abuse survivors have received help because of new services made available to them in her name.
"This is the community rising up," said Mary Travers Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center.
Her legacy lives deepest in the family she protected. Before and after her death, she gave her children and stepchildren the strength to endure and the freedom to carve their own path forward.
As a stepmother, Aasiya Hassan was more of a parent than their father ever was, said Sonia and stepson Michael Hassan, speaking publicly for the first time since her death.
"There was a lot more to her than how she died," said Michael, 27.
Despite her husband's terror tactics, Aasiya built a full life for herself and plotted a path to safety and independence for her family.
Michael reflected on that, shortly before his annual pilgrimage to his stepmother's grave.
"She was so close," he said.
Two weeks of freedom
Sonia reflected on the brief taste of happiness for the family in the days immediately after her stepmother filed for divorce. The family had taken out an order of protection against Mo Hassan after he tried to break into their home.
For two weeks, nobody hid in their rooms. They hung out together because they knew their father was banned from their Orchard Park home.
"It was the first time our house felt like a home," Sonia said. "The house was lighter. We were smiling. We were laughing. We finally felt comfortable."
Aasiya had made a critical decision – and staked her life and the life of her family on it.
As a trained architect and businesswoman, she founded and operated with her husband Bridges TV, an American Muslim lifestyles cable channel created to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. She also ran a 7-Eleven franchise and raised two children and two stepchildren by Mo Hassan's first marriage.
"She wasn't a cowering victim," Michael said. "She worked harder than any human being I've ever known. She's definitely one of those people who could have set the world on fire."
As her husband's abuse escalated, she documented and photographed the evidence, took out conditional orders of protection against him and enrolled in the University at Buffalo's executive MBA program so she could independently support her children and stepchildren. She eventually bought a separate phone her husband couldn't monitor and spent her savings on a divorce lawyer.
She knew her situation was perilous and moved cautiously in the face of her husband's custody threats, physical violence and manipulative control over her money and their children.
"She stayed for us," said Sonia, who for years urged her to leave their father.
Sonia cried as she remembered the two weeks – a time it finally seemed the family would break from her father for good.
Aasiya had soaked in the laughter and conversation. She told them they made her confident she'd done the right thing.
"Even though the time we had a family was so short," Sonia said, "at least for two weeks, we had it."
Day of horror
Though legally barred from visiting his family, Mo Hassan found a way to ambush his wife in their TV studio. He had bought two hunting knives earlier that day and lured his wife into the station, asking her to drop off clean clothes for him after hours when he wasn't supposed to be there. But he was waiting. He stabbed her from behind.
After a burst of savagery, he washed off the knives in a sink and lined them up for police to find.
Then he walked out and greeted his alarmed son, Michael, then a high school senior. Michael had been waiting in the car with his two younger siblings, expecting his stepmother to quickly reappear and take them to dinner. But she didn't. When his father emerged from the studio, he feared the worst.
Mo Hassan walked into the Orchard Park police station and told officers his wife was dead.
Police encountered a horror scene. They found Aasiya decapitated and stabbed so many times the medical examiner ran out of letters in the alphabet to label them all.
Michael sometimes wonders how different it would have been if he had volunteered to bring the clothes into the station.
But nothing can change what happened. So he tries not to dwell on it.
"It's not speculation that gets me anywhere good," he said.
Fallout and memories
Soon after her death, Aasiya's siblings and mother flew to Orchard Park to look after the four children, the youngest of whom were 4 and 6.
Aasiya's parents gained custody of the youngest ones and ensured Michael and Sonia, a commuting UB freshman at the time, had a stable home until the school year ended. The siblings were soon separated, with the two youngest moving to Pakistan.
"In some ways, they kind of felt like my kids," said Sonia, already a teenager when the youngest was born. "Their going away was very hard."
The older siblings recall the media stories that followed. Many non-local reports labeled the death as a Muslim "honor killing" although Mo Hassan was not religious and his wife's death bore all the signs of domestic violence.
Michael Hassan said his father mentally and physically terrorized his stepmother and traumatized his children. Many brutal instances were chronicled in Aasiya's divorce papers and in court.
But that's not what he and his sister prefer to remember.
Instead, Sonia prefers to remember playing in the pit orchestra at school on her 16th birthday when her stepmother showed up with a cake and a new silver trumpet, even though the two had recently argued. Her father rarely gave Aasiya enough money to cover more than the basics. So Aasiya set aside $50 a week for an entire year to pay for the instrument.
While Sonia was in college, her trumpet instructor suggested she trade in the trumpet for a more professional one. Sonia wouldn't part with it.
"I still play it," she said.
Michael remembers the family's marathon viewings of the TV miniseries "Pride and Prejudice," the Jane Austen novel. Aasiya Hassan was an Austen fan. And while Michael Hassan initially mocked it, he found himself being drawn into the love story as much as everyone in the family.
"There was a lot of joy," he said. "It wasn't all struggle and sadness."
Domestic violence advocacy
Aasiya Hassan's death ignited an international conversation about domestic violence. Imams in mosques around the country addressed the evil of family violence.
Advocates in the Muslim community launched the International Purple Hijab day in Aasiya Hassan's memory. On the second Saturday of every February, women are encouraged to wear purple head scarfs to remember those who have suffered from domestic abuse.
Murphy, then Orchard Park's town supervisor, recalled hearing about the killing. A former WKBW newscaster, Murphy was a regular customer at the 7-Eleven Assiya operated in the village and offered hiring advice to her for the cable network's business plan.
After her death and the shooting fatality of Orchard Park resident Angela Moss six months later, religious leaders throughout Orchard Park told Murphy their parishioners were stepping forward with their own domestic violence issues and needed help. Murphy and the pastors toured the downtown Family Justice Center – a one-stop shop for domestic violence survivors who need help.
That same day Murphy had agreed to become the center's new executive director and floated the idea of opening a satellite office in Orchard Park. A church offered to lease an old residential structure to the center for $1 a year, and the Family Justice Center board gave Murphy five years to raise the $100,000 needed to renovate the building and find volunteers to run it two days a week. It took her seven months.
The Southtowns Family Justice Center, dedicated in memory of Assiya Hassan, opened on the two-year anniversary of her death. Since its opening in February 2011, the center has served 900 new clients and more than 500 returning ones.
Michael Hassan now works as a software programmer for a biotech startup in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Sonia Hassan works as a copywriter in New York City. They remain close and stay in touch with their younger siblings in Pakistan and Aasiya's three siblings.
None of the children has spoken with their father since the murder. Michael and Sonia renewed orders of protection against him a few years ago. They hope he never sees the outside of prison.
Mo Hassan isn't up for parole until 2034. Lawyers call his chances for release remote. He unsuccessfully appealed his conviction last year, maintaining that he, not his wife, was the abuse victim. He's serving a sentence of 25 years to life at the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility.
Haaris Zubair, Aasiya's brother, said Mo Hassan initially tried to send letters to his younger children in Pakistan but they were never shared. Then he tried to reach them by sending letters to their school, but those were intercepted. He gave up after 2011.
"All of us still grieve her absence privately," said a sister, Salma Zubair. "This is no way to live."
Haaris Zubair became more devoted to his faith and said he remembers his sister when he prays five times a day.
Both of Aasiya's children in Pakistan excel in high school and are likely to come to the United States for college, said Zubair, whose family primarily raises them now. Salma Zubair also said she believes the two children would like to come to Canada and live closer to their older siblings.
Asma Firfirey, another sister, said Aasiya embodied the family's joy. She remembers her sister and their father singing love songs together during the daily electrical outages in Pakistan.
"We'd go crazy laughing at it because sometimes right then the lights went on," she recalled. "Now we are so serious about every single thing."
Sonia and Michael said they feel more fortunate, having received support and counseling over the years. They are still capable of feeling trust, empathy and optimism. Their father didn't destroy that.
"What happened to her was so unjust and so unfair, it surprises me that I can believe that there can be justice and fairness in the world," Sonia said. "I am relentlessly optimistic, and I don’t understand how I can be."
Aasiya's children lost their mother too young to carry many memories of her. So Haaris Zubair reminds them she was worthy of being called a saint.
"Remember her good name," he tells them.